d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution provides for freedom of movement “within the territories of the state unless restricted by a judicial decision or by the implementation of laws,” but the government, ISIS, and other armed groups restricted internal movement and travel and instituted security checkpoints to monitor such travel throughout the regions under their respective control. Government sieges in Homs, Damascus, rural Damascus, Deir al-Zour, and Idlib Governorates restricted the freedom of movement and resulted in documented cases of death, starvation, and severe malnutrition, while forced evacuations following sieges resulted in mass displacement and additional breakdowns in service provision and humanitarian assistance (see section 1.g.).
The government inconsistently cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government provided some cooperation to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Both government and opposition forces reportedly besieged, shelled, and otherwise made inaccessible some Palestinian refugee camps, neighborhoods, and sites, which resulted in severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care and humanitarian assistance, and civilian deaths.
In-country Movement: In government-besieged cities throughout the country, government forces blocked humanitarian access, leading to severe malnutrition, lack of access to medical care, and death. The violence, coupled with significant cultural pressure, severely restricted the movement of women in many areas. Additionally, the law allows certain male relatives to place travel bans on women.
The government expanded security checkpoints into civilian areas to monitor and limit movement. Government forces reportedly used snipers to prevent protests, enforce curfews, target opposition forces, and, in some cases, prevent civilians from fleeing besieged towns. The government also barred foreign diplomats from visiting most parts of the country and rarely granted them permission to travel outside Damascus. The consistently high level and unpredictability of violence severely restricted movement throughout the country.
In areas they still controlled, armed opposition groups and terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS also restricted movement, including with checkpoints (see section 1.g.). According to the COI, long desert detour routes exposed drivers and passengers to arbitrary arrest, unlawful search and seizure of property, demands for bribes, and detention and execution at checkpoints administered by ISIS, the government, and other armed actors.
While the SDC and SDF generally supported IDP communities in northeast Syria, in July HRW claimed that the SDC and members of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration operating in Deir al-Zour and Raqqa confiscated the identification cards of IDPs in camps and prevented their freedom of movement. According to UN and HRW allegations, the SDF in some instances required IDPs to obtain “sponsorship” to move to traditionally Kurdish areas controlled by the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Kobani.
In the remaining areas under its control, ISIS restricted the movement of government supporters or assumed supporters, especially the Alawite and Shia populations, as well as Yezidi, Christian, and other captives. ISIS reportedly did not permit female passengers to traverse territory it controlled unless accompanied by a close male relative.
Foreign Travel: While citizens have the right to travel internationally, the government denied passports and other vital documents based on the applicant’s political views, association with opposition groups, or ties to geographic areas where the opposition dominated. The government also imposed exit visa requirements and routinely closed the Damascus airport and border crossings, claiming the closures were due to violence or threats of violence. For example, local media reported that every man between the ages of 17 and 42 must obtain approval from the conscription office before leaving the country. Additionally, the government often banned travel by human rights or civil society activists, their families, and affiliates. Many citizens reportedly learned of the ban against their travel only when authorities prevented them from departing the country. The government reportedly applied travel bans without explanation or explicit duration, including in cases when individuals sought to travel for health reasons. The government comprehensively banned international travel of opposition members, often targeting any such individual who attempted to travel. Local media and human rights groups repeatedly stated that opposition activists and their families hesitated to leave the country, fearing attacks at airports and border crossings.
The government also often refused to allow citizens to return. According to numerous media outlets, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security directorate, stated that in coordinating the return of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, the Syrian government reviews a list of names and “on average” rejects 10 percent of them.
Syrians born abroad to parents who fled the conflict and remained in refugee camps generally did not have access to Syrian citizenship documents. The government allowed Syrians living outside of the country, whose passports expired, to renew their passports at consulates. Many who fled as refugees, however, feared reporting to the government against which they may have protested or feared the government could direct reprisals against family members still in the country.
Women older than age 18 have the legal right to travel without the permission of male relatives, but a husband may file a request with the Interior Ministry to prohibit his wife from departing the country.
There were reports ISIS destroyed Syrian passports and legal records and produced its own passports, not recognized by any country or entity. These policies disproportionately affected children, because many left the country before obtaining a passport or identification card. ISIS explicitly prohibited women from foreign travel.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
During the year violence continued to be the primary reason for displacement, much of it attributed to government and Russian aerial attacks. Government and progovernment evacuations of besieged areas, often overseen by Russian forces, forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of persons. Years of conflict and evacuations repeatedly displaced persons, and each displacement depleted family assets. In September the United Nations estimated there were more than 6.2 million IDPs in the country, including 1.5 million new IDPs since the start of the year. The United Nations estimated that 750,000 IDPs returned to their places of origin during the first half of the year. Up to 1.2 million persons lived in UN-designated hard-to-reach areas. UN humanitarian officials reported that most IDPs sought shelter with host communities or in collective centers, abandoned buildings, or informal camps. The humanitarian response to the country was coordinated through a complex bureaucratic structure. The crisis inside the country continued to meet the UN criteria for a level 3 response–the global humanitarian system’s classification for response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.
The government generally did not provide sustainable access to services for IDPs, did not offer IDPs assistance or protection, did not facilitate humanitarian assistance for IDPs, and provided inconsistent protection. The government forcibly displaced populations from besieged areas and restricted movement of IDPs. The government did not promote the safe, voluntary, and dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs and, in many cases, refused to allow IDPs to return home. Seven Syrians who had attempted to return to their homes in Darayya and Qaboun, or whose immediate relatives attempted to return in May and July, told HRW that they or their relatives were unable to access their residential or commercial properties. According to HRW, the government was imposing town-wide restrictions on access to Darayya and in Qaboun the government either had restricted access to their neighborhoods or had demolished the property of the Syrians attempting to return. The government routinely disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid, including medical assistance, to areas under siege as well as to newly recaptured areas (see section 1.g.).
The SARC functioned as the main partner for international humanitarian organizations working inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance in government and some opposition-controlled areas. NGOs operating from Damascus faced government bureaucratic obstruction in attempting to provide humanitarian assistance. UN agencies and NGOs sought to increase the flow of assistance to opposition-held areas subject to government offensives to meet growing humanitarian needs, but the government increasingly restricted cross-line operations originating from Damascus. Cross-border operations from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, provided humanitarian assistance, but these halted from Jordan in June when the government retook territory in the southwest up to the Syria-Jordan border. While humanitarian aid was provided cross-border from Turkey to northwest Syria (Idlib and Aleppo) via two border crossings, Turkey prohibited the provision of humanitarian and stabilization aid to areas of northeast Syria from Turkey.
Assistance reached some hard-to-reach locations, but the government continued to hinder UN and NGO access, and the government secured control over many of these areas during the year. For example, humanitarian organizations reported throughout the summer that the government did not permit UN agencies the sustained access required to conduct detailed needs assessments for vulnerable populations in Quneitra. The United Nations reported that as of November only seven humanitarian assistance convoys had accessed hard-to-reach areas during the year, providing assistance to approximately 220,000 persons.
In early November the United Nations and SARC delivered humanitarian assistance to approximately 50,000 persons in need at Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Jordanian border. Additionally, the convoy provided an emergency vaccination campaign to protect some 5,000 children against measles, polio, and other diseases. The overall humanitarian situation in Rukban camp had reached a dire state, with reported shortages of basic commodities, protection concerns, increasing violence, and the death of several children who reportedly were unable to obtain the further medical treatment they needed, according to the United Nations. Prior to the delivery of humanitarian goods, the last UN delivery of assistance to Rukban was in January, delivered through Jordan. Prior to the November delivery, the government refused to authorize a convoy to travel from Damascus to Rukban.
Armed opposition groups, and terrorist groups such as HTS and ISIS, also impeded humanitarian assistance to IDPs. For example, in March the United Nations criticized the Turkish-backed armed opposition groups, including the FSA, for providing inconsistent, restricted access to IDPs in Afrin. In October the United Kingdom temporarily suspended the delivery of aid to Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province due to HTS taxes on aid trucks. The United Kingdom subsequently resumed aid delivery and, as of November, was still delivering aid to Idlib Province. The SDF and SDC generally facilitated the safe and voluntary return of IDPs during the year, particularly to Raqqa.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: UNHCR maintained that conditions for refugee return to Syria in safety and dignity were not yet in place and did not promote, nor facilitate, the return of refugees to Syria during the year. In July, however, the government and Russia began a diplomatic campaign to encourage the return of refugees to Syria. While Russia reportedly was eager to use the return of Syrian refugees as a means to secure international donations for Syria reconstruction efforts, the Syrian government adopted a more cautious approach on promoting the return of refugees, reportedly due to the government’s suspicion that many Syrian refugees supported the opposition.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR and UNRWA were able to maintain limited protection areas for refugees and asylum seekers, although violence hampered access to vulnerable populations. In coordination with both local and international NGOs, the United Nations continued to provide such individuals essential services and assistance.
Employment: The law does not explicitly grant refugees, except for Palestinians, the right to work. While the government rarely granted non-Palestinian refugees a work permit, many refugees found work in the informal sector as guards, construction workers, street vendors, and in other manual jobs.
Access to Basic Services: The law allows for the issuance of identity cards to Palestinian refugees and the same access to basic services provided to citizens. The government also allowed Iraqi refugees access to publicly available services, such as health care and education, but residency permits were available only to those refugees who entered the country legally and possessed a valid passport, which did not include all refugees. The lack of access to residency permits issued by authorities exposed refugees to risks of harassment and exploitation, and severely affected their access to public services. The approximately 48,000 non-Palestinian refugees and asylum seekers in the country faced growing protection risks, multiple displacements, tightened security procedures at checkpoints, and difficulty obtaining required residency permits, all of which resulted in restrictions on their freedom of movement. UNHCR reported a rise in sexual- and gender-based violence and child-protection concerns among refugees, including child labor, school dropouts, and early marriages.
Following the 1962 census, approximately 150,000 Kurds lost their citizenship. A legislative decree had ordained the single-day census in 1962, and the government executed it unannounced with regard to the inhabitants of al-Hasakah Governorate. Anyone not registered for any reason or without all required paperwork became “foreign” from that day onward. The government at the time argued it based its decision on a 1945 wave of alleged illegal immigration of Kurds from neighboring states, including Turkey, to Hasakah, where they allegedly “fraudulently” registered as Syrian citizens. In a similar fashion, authorities recorded anyone who refused to participate as “undocumented.” Because of this loss of citizenship, these Kurds and their descendants lacked identity cards and could not access government services, including health care and education. They also faced social and economic discrimination. Stateless Kurds do not have the right to inherit or bequeath assets, and their lack of citizenship or identity documents restricted their travel to and from the country.
In 2011 President Assad decreed that stateless Kurds in al-Hasakah Governorate who were registered as “foreigners” could apply for citizenship. It was unclear how many Kurds benefited from the decree. UNHCR reported that approximately 40,000 of these Kurds remained unable to obtain citizenship. Likewise, the decree did not extend to the approximately 160,000 “unregistered” stateless Kurds. The change from 150,000 to 160,000 reflected an approximate increase in population since the 1962 census.
Children derive citizenship solely from their father. Because women cannot confer nationality on their children, an unknown number of children whose fathers were missing or deceased due to the continuing conflict were at risk of statelessness. Mothers could not pass citizenship to children born outside the country, including in neighboring countries operating refugee camps. Children who left the country during the conflict also experienced difficulties obtaining identification necessary to prove citizenship and obtain services.